bookmark_borderReinterpreting Islam

A Turkish project to reinterpret and reject some of the hadith (traditions handed down from the Prophet and his Companions) seems to have attracted some media attention. This BBC story, for example, talks of “radical revision” and hints at a religious reformation.

The Turkish newspapers that I follow online don’t seem to be making as much of a big deal of it. From what I can see, the radical nature of what the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs is doing is a bit hyped. It is true, however, that the project will probably get a negative reaction from many Muslim conservatives and traditionalists.

There is an element of boldness in the reinterpretations in question, in that proposing to change long-settled interpretations that go back to the classical period of Islam is no small thing. It’s not over-the-top bold, because that element of flexibility has long been inherent in Islam, if not often exploited. The consensus interpretations of classical religious scholars are, after all, not what are held to be the at the core of the religion. There is a lot you can do around the margins without questioning the Quran or the traditional sacred history or even the general thrust of the traditions and Islamic Law. Moreover, some of this can go beyond tinkering at the margins. After all, the Quran is a remarkably opaque text. Much of it makes no sense whatsoever, on the face of it. Even relatively early Muslim interpreters of the classical period had no idea what much of the Quran meant; a lot of the traditions and sacred history were at least in part made up to try and provide some context for the Quran. So playing around with the less-sacred interpretations and traditions can have the effect of changing what is understood as sacred.

That, however, is also a reason not to expect too much boldness from Muslim reinterpretation. Messing with the margins too much can inadvertently highlight the obscurity and lack of sense of much of the Quran. A historian of religion can admit that we often don’t know what the *&^%$#@! the Quran says and that early Muslims did not understand it either. But that is practically impossible for a religious scholar who takes the Quran as the word of God. Indeed, modernizers and fundamentalists alike are typically united in thinking of their sacred texts as providing practical guidance for life, even down to helping us solve practical problems specific to modern life. It is important that reinterpretation should not be seen to be reinterpretation. Emphasizing reinterpretation for modern needs also risks acknowledging that religion is a human production. And that remains unacceptable for devout Muslims.

So don’t expect too much from the Turkish effort. Moreover, there are also other reasons not to hold our breaths. After all, this is a state-sponsored effort, in the long tradition of the Turkish state trying to shape religion to its own ends. This is not always successful. Today, in fact, is an especially bad time for state-determined interpretations of religion. In Turkey (and many parts of the Muslim world) Islam has become more democratized and populist in character. In an environment where there are multiple competing interpretations, and where the devout do not look to centralized religious authorities to the same degree they once did, officially endorsed interpretations do not have that great a competitive advantage. Indeed, they often come under suspicion.

Naturally, I hope that I am surprised, and that this sort of thing is a lot more successful than I expect. Liberalizing tendencies within religions are generally in the interest of secular people. But there is a good chance that the end result is a reinterpretation that is celebrated by some intellectuals and modernizers but is a dead letter as far as popular religion goes.

bookmark_borderHigh weirdness

Like many creationism-watchers, I regularly visit sites such as The Discovery Institute, Answers in Genesis, and so on. I like weirdness, and these are good places to find views that are very weird from a mainstream scientific standpoint.

Today I ran into a paper in the Answers Research Journal that is high weirdness indeed: “An Apology and Unification Theory for the Reconciliation of Physical Matter and Metaphysical Cognizance” by Desmond P. Allen. Hoo boy. I don’t know how to describe it—best read it, or read it as far as you can stand. It’s one of the more interesting combinations of quantum-inspired craziness and young-earth creationism that I’ve ever run into. Normally, the two don’t mix well. I almost always see quantum abuse in more New Agey circles. And creationism, well, it’s popular, but it has a very narrow constituency nonetheless.

On top of that, there’s the “metaphysics” aspect of the whole thing. So here’s a combination of three separate forms of drivel: metaphysical pontification and two usually quite distinct forms of pseudoscience.

Quite an accomplishment.

bookmark_borderPew Forum survey on American religion

A survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life of 35,000 Americans found that 44% of them have changed affiliations between “major faith traditions,” such as from Baptist to Methodist. 28% have switched between traditions.

Protestants make up a bare majority of Americans–51.3%.

16% classify themselves as not affiliated with any faith (despite only 7% being brought up that way), and 4% as atheist or agnostic.

Mormons account for 1.7% of the population, Muslims 0.6%, and Hindus 0.4%.

Those 18-29 were more likely to be unaffiliated with any religion than those over 70.

Catholicism has had the greatest loss of adherents, offset by Catholic immigrants, while the unaffiliated have had the greatest gain.

UPDATE (March 8, 2008): A Los Angeles Times op-ed by mathematician John Allen Poulos, author of the recent book Irreligion, argues that the number of unbelievers is probably underreported due to the general public’s mistrust of atheists.

bookmark_borderGerman children’s book against religion

Apparently, the German Family Ministry is trying to get a children’s book critical of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam “to be included on a list of literature considered dangerous for young people.” The book includes religious figures depicted in unflattering, broadly stereotypical ways.

Now, it looks like the book is indeed offensive, in the sense that if I were religious, I’d certainly be offended by it. But I don’t know how much of this would be religious hypersensitivity. Children’s literature has to be graphic, perhaps highly stereotypical. And I wonder if there’s any other way to try and act against the unwarranted sweetness-and-light stereotypes of religion that tends to be much more dominant in children’s media.

bookmark_borderArt, schmart

Occasionally I run into the complaint that without the influence of religious culture, art suffers. Modern art, apparently, is the inevitable result of a civilization that has lost interest in God; it is the sort of ugly, purposeless, offensive stuff you get when art loses track of transcendent ideals.

I guess if you believe in Beauty with a capital B, and that art (should that be Art?) should be about reaching into the higher Platonic realms to nourish the soul or whatever, some of this might make sense. But somehow, with me I find this sort of complaint doesn’t resonate at all. And not just because you need too many implicitly Capitalized assumptions to turn this into some sort of argument. It’s because I like modern art.

Sure, there is plenty of stuff out there that just isn’t to my taste. I’ll never get performance art, for one thing. Still, I find that in art museums, I gravitate toward the recent material. Possibly because I don’t come from a religious cultural background, I don’t miss it when it’s not overtly present. But really, I like modern stuff. Maybe I look for an “ooh, that’s interesting” kind of feeling rather than whatever response more soul-affirming art is supposed to provoke. Whatever the reason, though, complaints about modern, secular art leave me bewildered.

bookmark_borderPutting religion in schools to defend evolution?

John West, an Intelligent Design proponent, writes that religious liberals and even secularists are injecting religion into public school classrooms. They do this by promoting varieties of theology that are warmer toward biological evolution than ID.

West might have a point. I don’t trust ID people— in my experience, they’re not reliable sources, putting their disagreeable spin on everything they talk about. And I’m way out of my depth when it comes to any law-related issue. But there is still something troubling about this.

Religion is the biggest source of resistance to evolution, and promoting more liberal religiosity is the only realistic way to deflect this resistance. So, for the sake of easing a major headache for science education, I’m inclined to say that sure, liberal religious statements about evolution can only help in the classroom. But in a more strictly secularist mood, I also want to say that I want all religion out of science education. I probably shouldn’t make exceptions for theologies that ease headaches.

I don’t know where I stand on this, really.

bookmark_borderA cynic’s guide to academic departments

Mathematics: Mathematicians get to make up anything they want as long as it’s consistent. They therefore have a tenuous connection to reality and tend to be susceptible to crank notions.

Statistics: Supposed to be about nothing in particular: a statistician can tell you how to analyze data gathered from any field of inquiry. This works exactly as well as the notion that you can manage a company without having to know anything about the industry it operates in.

Computer Science: There is some interesting math concerning the basics of computers. Too bad computer science is largely devoted to tasks such as improving accounting databases and data mining for government surveillance of citizens, and therefore inherits some of the smallmindedness of its applications.

Physics: The dishonest science. Physicists love talking about black holes and quarks, about the beauty of distant galaxies and the power of equations. They do this to distract themselves and everyone else from the fact that most funding comes their way in hopes that it will lead to better electronic gadgets or more devastating weapons systems.

Chemistry: Better living through chemistry—an eminently practical science that gives clear-cut results in the lab, which can be directly applied to tangible uses. In other words, its risks being intellectually unambitious and sometimes rather boring.

Biology: The science that explores the wonders and beauty of life itself, seeking understanding of plants and animals in their intricate complexity. Biologists mostly investigate life by looking at dead things under microscopes, and performing excruciatingly dull biochemical experiments with bits and pieces that are too small to see under microscopes.

Geology: Used to be on the cutting edge of intellectual life in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Agricultural science: The smelliest science. Its mission is to remove all traces of taste from food.

Engineering: You build things. There’s lots of money coming in. This leads some engineers into delusions of grandeur. Since they are the ones engaged hands-on with the real world, they figure they know something deep about the universe and can tell everyone else how to do their jobs. The worst cases are engineers who become part of political movements who want to order human society along “rational” lines.

Psychology: Clinical psychologists try to help disturbed people, often basing therapies on theories that sound like they were jokes made up by authority figures to see what they could get away with. Experimental psychologists find this disreputable, preferring to run tests on college students to gather real data. They then use powerful statistical techniques to help them overgeneralize.

Sociology: Sociologists collect lots of numerical data, even if it’s often in terms of orderings rather than genuine magnitudes. Then they do statistics with this data, mainly because there doesn’t seem to be much else one can do. This occasionally leads to policy recommendations that are much more expensive to produce than by flipping a coin, but with much greater levels of false confidence.

Political science: If “science” appears in the name of a discipline, this is very often because it is not a science.

Anthropology: Since our global so-called civilization has wiped out the way of life of most “primitive” societies, anthropologists these days have less opportunity for old-fashioned fieldwork. Many have to make do with wringing hands about how impossible it is to understand The Other without an insiders perspective.

Archaeology: Archaeologists can look forward to a career using toothbrushes to uncover ancient garbage. They then try to compensate for all the tedium by trying to derive profound conclusions about lost civilizations from well-brushed potsherds.

Economics: Known as the “dismal science.” This description is half-right. Economics is the astrology of the modern era. Except that it’s much better funded, and it’s powerful enough to make billions of people miserable.

Philosophy: The art of gazing at Aristotle’s navel. Philosophy is full of opportunities to ask Deep Questions from armchairs, and to conjure up theories about them without worrying about pesky reality tests. It is the field with the highest ratio of self-importance to actual intellectual accomplishment.

Religious studies: Theology disguised for secular universities. The object is not to study religion but to come to a happy affirmation of all faiths, provided they can be tagged as supernatural or transcendent in some fashion. The great benefit of having religious studies departments is that it keeps the different religions from fighting amongst themselves.

History: A really good field to specialize in, if your horizons are limited to trying to write a 900-page book on “Early conceptions of the metaphysics of head lice and mothers-in-law among late teenaged Swabian goatherders, 1234-1246.”

Classics: Used to have an evolutionary rationale, via the handicap principle. You advertised your superior social position and financial security by the fact that you could afford to have studied such a useless thing as long-dead languages. Classics suffers from neglect in less aristocratic societies.

Literature: Students get interested in studying literature because they like interesting stories, or because they’re no good with math. By the time they get their doctorate, they will have turned into zombies devoted to the production of verbal diarrhea associated with the latest fad in literary criticism.

Linguistics: It’s hard to say anything nasty about linguistics. Which can only be because linguistics is such a dull, inconsequential backwater that it’s impossible to find anything to satirize about such a gray nonentity. But that would be an incredibly nasty thing to say. Interesting paradox.

Communications: This seems to primarily involve journalism or public relations. Under the suspicion of being professional liars, in either case. The PR people get paid much better.

Theatre: Some skills, like math or science, probably have to be learned and practiced in an academic setting. Having departments of theatre just seems like a case of the need for having academic credentials attached to everything.

Art: Art departments are an indirect way to subsidize art. The more interesting question is, where do people learn how to write the pretentious gobbledygook on the labels in art museums?

Music: Dedicated to the preservation and study of dead forms of music that have lost the capacity to entertain large audiences. Would have even less of a constituency if not for the high middle-class demand for material suitable for snobbery.

Business: The main intellectual use of business schools is to highlight the hypocrisy of political conservatives. They love to complain about the leftish ideological orientation of humanities departments, while business schools, whose missions explicitly support the interests of the business classes, command much higher levels of funding, students, and influence on the modern campus.

Accounting: It’s impossible to say anything about accounting without taking a cheap shot. Accountancy is its own punishment.

Finance: Also known as the department of conjuring, dedicated to the art of creating the illusion of economic value by the shuffling around of paper.

Marketing: Sort of like Communications, except that they’re more honest about the fact that they’re all about trying to sell you a bill of goods.

Education: The most idealistic, selfless students want to give back to the community by going into teaching. They get punished for their naivete
by being condemned to herd indifferent teenagers in environments of minimal intellectual stimulation. Education departments are there to ease the transition into hell by deadening any intellectual spark that remains in aspiring teachers.

Pre-professional departments: People have to learn their trade somewhere, and presumably a university is as good as any other setting. The Arts and Sciences departments are grateful for the presence of pre-professional students, since they can impose various distribution requirements on those students, justifying the employment of numerous faculty and graduate students in the Arts and Sciences.

bookmark_borderMaterialists and dualists

There’s an interesting blog-debate between skeptic Steven Novella and intelligent design proponent Michael Egnor. Both Egnor and Novella come from a neuroscience background, though Novella’s materialism is by far the more scientifically mainstream view than Egnor’s dualism.

I am entirely in Novella’s camp, I confess. The materialist position is continuous with the rest of science, is making steady progress, and occasionally comes up with surprising explanations rather than just rephrasing folk psychology. In many ways, cognitive neuroscience is only at the beginning of what promises to be vastly complicated and difficult road. But I think there are very good reasons to believe it’s on the right track, while would-be competitors like dualism are hard to take seriously any more.

So Egnor-type dualists continually have to resort to charging the materialists not just with not having solved certain problems, but of being incapable of addressing some fundamental issues. And they latch onto any hint of incompleteness or philosophical perplexity they find, like the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness. I’m inclined to think the problem here is one of more traditional-minded philosophers confusing themselves. But in any case, I expect philosophers will sort things out among themselves. Or (if we’re pessimistic) perhaps they’ll get bogged down in debates of gloriously obscure technicality, disconnecting themselves from reality checks in the process. But I think we’re past the point where philosophizing can have a major effect on the process of doing science about the mind and brain. As Novella also points out, dualism is very much like anti-evolution thought: a public nuisance but intellectual backwater.